The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Charles Kernaghan, who crusaded against sweatshops, dies at 74

Charles Kernaghan, director of the National Labor Committee, outside St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York in 2007. (Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)
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Charles Kernaghan, a labor activist who helped revitalize the anti-sweatshop movement in the late 20th century, targeting American companies such as Disney — as well as a clothing line backed by Kathie Lee Gifford — while waging a dogged campaign to expose mistreatment at overseas factories, died June 1 at his home in Manhattan. He was 74.

His sister, Maryellen Kernaghan, confirmed the death but did not give a cause.

For two decades, Mr. Kernaghan spearheaded a string of highly publicized campaigns against child labor, corporate greed and sweatshop conditions, taking on companies including Nike, Target and Walmart. Using video footage and worker testimonials, he revealed dismal conditions at factories in Central America, China, Bangladesh and Jordan, where workers were subjugated to physical abuse and often labored for a few cents an hour.

Apparel industry executives questioned his facts and branded him a relentless self-promoter. But his work was credited with spurring workplace reforms including improved wages, ventilation and access to factory bathrooms, and was backed in some cases by independent human rights monitors who sought to ensure safe conditions.

With his wire-rimmed glasses, carefully trimmed beard and slicked-back silver hair, Mr. Kernaghan could have passed for an academic — indeed, he had once pursued a PhD in psychology and anthropology. But he was also a gifted athlete, a former boxer and high school football star who gave off a fidgety energy while talking nonstop to audiences at union halls, college auditoriums and houses of worship.

Reaching into a bag of clothes during a speech, he would display a Walmart shirt made by Vietnamese women who were allegedly beaten at a factory in American Samoa, or would hold up a Nike jersey that retailed for $140 in the United States but was made for 29 cents in El Salvador. “There is blood on this garment” he would shout, with an almost religious intensity.

“Charles Kernaghan is the labor movement’s mouse that roared,” wrote New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse. In a 2003 profile in Mother Jones, journalist Charles Bowden declared that the activist seemed “born to make the back pages of the global economy suddenly leap onto front pages.”

Mr. Kernaghan spent most of his advocacy career as the director of a small New York City organization called the National Labor Committee, later known as the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights. Their investigations were cited by publications including The Washington Post and featured on TV shows like NBC’s “Dateline,” which used footage that Mr. Kernaghan had taken inside a Bangladeshi factory via a hidden camera embedded in his glasses.

He and his group were vaulted to national prominence in 1996, after Mr. Kernaghan embarrassed Gifford, the cheery co-host of “Live With Regis and Kathie Lee,” by revealing at a congressional hearing that her clothing line was made in part by 13-year-old girls in Honduras, who worked 13 hours a day for 31 cents an hour.

Mr. Kernaghan said he found some of her brand’s clothing at a sweatshop, although at the time he had no idea who she was: For years, he had avoided television and scorned modern technology, refusing to use a computer and relying on his colleagues to type memos.

During a tearful appearance on her syndicated talk show, Gifford denied wrongdoing and said she knew nothing about the labor practices behind her clothing line, which was manufactured by contractors for Walmart. “I started my clothing line to help children,” she said, condemning what she described as “a vicious attack” by Mr. Kernaghan.

Mr. Kernaghan became known as “the man who made Kathie Lee cry,” as The Post put it in a headline. Continuing to press for labor reforms, he brought one of the factory’s former employees to the United States so that she could share her story. Walmart canceled its contract with the plant — Mr. Kernaghan was not exactly pleased, having tried instead to improve wages and working conditions — and Gifford became something of an ally, speaking out against sweatshops and vowing that independent monitors would inspect her clothing line’s plants.

The episode drew attention to a cause that was increasingly embraced by college students and President Bill Clinton, who announced an anti-sweatshop plan with Gifford by his side. Noam Chomsky and other activists credited Mr. Kernaghan as a primary catalyst for the movement, as did publications like Women’s Wear Daily, which wrote that he was “shaking up the issue of labor abuses in the apparel industry like nothing since the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.”

“The Kathie Lee Gifford thing literally changed the way people do business,” Mr. Kernaghan told The Post in 2005. Kevin Burke, the head of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, seemed to agree, saying the episode spurred a reckoning in the industry. “We remember that every day,” he told The Post, “and that’s a lesson to us, the fact that we don’t want that to happen again.”

Even as he sought out high-profile targets for his campaigns, Mr. Kernaghan said he was often uncomfortable in the spotlight. He had spent years bouncing among jobs before turning to advocacy, and struggled with shyness while trying to network on behalf of his cause. “It was torture in the beginning,” he told Mother Jones. “I had to dress up; I had no clothes. A friend in my building had a suit I’d borrow, a size 42. I’d look like a clown. I was all right sitting down but when I stood up, it was like I was in a bag.

“I feel better around working people,” he continued. “I don’t feel comfortable around professional people — I have no small talk.”

The second of three children, Charles Patrick Kernaghan was born in Brooklyn on April 2, 1948, and grew up in the borough’s Williamsburg section and in the Long Island community of Valley Stream. His Scottish-born father worked in construction, specializing in acoustical tiles; his mother was a homemaker from a Czech-Austrian family and later volunteered for the New York Foundling, a child welfare agency.

Mr. Kernaghan attributed his interest in social justice to his parents, who helped raise more than 20 foster children. He had their backing when he went against the wishes of their parish priest, starting a petition to oppose the installation of a church air conditioner. How could the church justify the cost, he argued, when the sick and poor needed help?

Mr. Kernaghan considered joining the priesthood but instead studied psychology, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1970 from Loyola University Chicago and a master’s in 1975 from the New School for Social Research in New York. He taught at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh before leaving the school to read and wander, traveling around Europe and the Middle East in between stints as a taxi driver, furniture mover, union steward and carpenter.

Photography became an abiding interest. He took pictures of street scenes in Manhattan and landscapes in Maine, and brought his camera along when he was invited to join a religious peace march through Central America in 1985. The marchers were rallying behind labor leaders in the region who had been threatened, murdered or disappeared.

Mr. Kernaghan spent three days with impoverished workers occupying a cathedral in El Salvador and, although he spoke no Spanish, began to learn about the plight of laborers in the region. The experience “opened his eyes,” his sister said in a phone interview, “and they could never be closed again.”

When he returned home to Manhattan, he began organizing a one-man labor campaign with financing from his parents’ Social Security checks. He connected with the National Labor Committee and became a protege of one of the group’s original leaders, the Rev. David Dyson, who helped shape his early campaigns.

Those efforts included a 1995 protest targeting Gap, which agreed to independent monitoring at its contractors’ Central American factories. Labor Secretary Robert Reich later described the agreement as a “watershed.”

Mr. Kernaghan became the committee’s director in 1990, and ran the organization with help from Barbara Briggs, who for many years was his personal and professional partner. To promote their campaigns, they often used guerrilla tactics: During the Academy Awards in 1997, the group rented an airplane to fly a banner reading, “Disney Uses Sweatshops.”

They also turned to schoolchildren and religious groups for help. “The companies really, really hate it when the nuns get involved and start writing letters,” Mr. Kernaghan told the Times. “I mean, what are they going to say against nuns, right?”

Mr. Kernaghan eventually moved the organization to Pittsburgh. The group disbanded after he retired in his mid-60s and returned to New York, where he went on long walks across Manhattan with his Tibetan terrier. He also frequented the opera and symphony, which his sister described as “the one indulgence that he allowed himself” during his activist years.

She is his only immediate survivor.

“Not to sound Pollyannish, but I believe there is a basic decency in the American people that these companies don’t understand,” Mr. Kernaghan told the Times in 1996, looking back on his early campaigns. “We have to try to tap this decency. When we do that, we get a tremendous response.”

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